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Life

The Real Reason Animals Are 'Taking the Cities Back'

An expert explains why those feel-good viral videos are actually bad news.
20 April 2020, 8:00am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

A couple of days after Milan went into lockdown, a friend sent me a photo of a massive toad he'd seen on his way back from the supermarket. Alive and well, the amphibian looked totally at ease hanging out on the pavement, not far from my apartment. It's not impossible to find animals in Milan – the city has five canals, with ducks, fish and even herons – but that toad's confidence blew us away.

In the following weeks, feel-good news reports from all over the world showed animals taking back the streets of some of the world's busiest cities. Deer in Nara, Japan, monkeys just outside of Bangkok and dolphins swimming to the shores of the Venice lagoon (a story later debunked, together with a few other viral reports of animals conquering concrete jungles). Their brave adventures into human territory were celebrated as "the return of nature", and as some light relief amid pandemic-induced global anxiety – an idea subsequently mercilessly mocked by "nature is healing" memes.

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But the reality isn't so simple. In fact, for species that have come to depend on human habitats, life has become more difficult since the outbreak. For example, those cute little deer in Japan are usually fed by tourists visiting Nara, but social distancing rules have pushed them further into the city to find food. This is also true for "less exciting" animals. In Milan, pigeons are usually as dependent on tourists for survival as the Nara deer or the monkeys in Thailand – as are seagulls in port cities, while foxes and mice often rummage through bins and market leftovers.

"Animals are constantly monitoring the risks and opportunities of venturing into certain areas," explained Menno Schilthuizen, evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. "Most of the time, excessive human pressure will prevent them from doing so, but as soon as we're out of sight, they take up the space left by us."

Professor Schilthuizen's work focuses on the relationship between animals and cities, looking at how urban species are evolving differently from their wild counterparts. He said the lockdown is giving researchers the opportunity to study animal evolution at a much quicker pace than usual. "I must admit this is a new situation and has taken us by surprise," he said. "I've personally seen changes in the activity patterns of birds in my hometown." But Schilthuizen believes any changes in the natural world will be reverted as soon as the crisis is over and we all go back to business as usual.

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Most recent epidemics and pandemics, such as HIV, Ebola and SARS, were transmitted to humans via animals, and COVID-19 is no exception. This particular strain of coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats, before evolving to infect a pangolin and then a human. Both species were sold at a wet market in Wuhan, China, where rare animals are slaughtered on the spot and bought by rich customers. It's why experts believe that the more humans interfere with wild animals and shrink their natural habitats, the higher the risk of another pandemic.

Many see this state of emergency as a tragic rehearsal of how apocalyptic life could be in the near future if we don't fight the climate crisis in time. Emergencies such as catastrophic weather events and new pandemics "will appear with increasing frequency", the professor explained, "as our unsustainable activities unleash more and more backlashes from nature".

As it happens, the word apocalypse comes from the Greek apokálypsis, or "revelation". Unfortunately, our revelation needs to come from ourselves – nature can't magically bounce back and relieve humans of all the complex problems we've caused. But the crisis has revealed that many of the big changes necessary for nature's survival are also necessary to avoid another pandemic. Whether we act on this remains to be seen.